Flying Higher

by Don Boudreaux on November 26, 2013

in Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

Last night my 16-year-old son, Thomas, and I stumbled (through Amazon.com) upon the first episode of the Bob Newhart Show.  That was a sitcom series that ran from 1972 to 1978.  Although I watched much t.v. back then, and although I of course knew of this popular ’70s sitcom, I’d never before watched an episode until yesterday.  So we watched episode 1 from season 1.

Despite my generally liking Newhart’s humor – I loved his 1980s sitcom set in Vermont – I didn’t much like this episode.  (Nor did Thomas.)  But my object here is not to serve as t.v. critic.  Instead, I want just to relate one interesting fact noticed, from 2013, about a popular t.v. show from 1972.  Actually, two notes about that show.

The first is simply an observation that reflects my own aesthetics: the 1970s were incredibly ugly.  The styles and colors that men and women wore as fashion, as well as the kinds and colors of home furnishings that were popular, are, by today’s standards, hilariously garish and unappealing.

Secondly, and more substantively, is the plot of that show.  The plot centered on Bob Newhart’s wife (played by the late Suzanne Pleshette) being afraid to fly on airplanes and Newhart’s character discovering this fact only after several years of marriage.

“So what?” you might ask.  Here’s what.  The Newhart-Pleshette characters in that show are successful urban professionals living in Chicago.  How likely is it today that successful fortysomething urban professionals in America have such infrequent opportunities to fly that a person surprises his or her spouse, after several years of marriage, with the news that he or she is afraid of flying?  Not very, I think.

The fact that that show featured the Newhart character being surprised to learn that his wife is afraid of flying reveals, quite accurately, that commercial air travel in 1972 was a relatively rare event.  And so it was for most people lucky enough then actually to be able to travel by air.  Flying back then, even for middle-class urban dewellers, was indeed an event.  Today it’s as eventful as buying a new pair of jeans – and maybe less so.  (Also, by the way, air travel today is also much safer than at any time in the past.)

Ordinary Americans are today far richer than they were in the mid-1970s – the years that so many pundits and academics today continue to point to as those when our living standards peaked-only-to-plateau-ever-since.

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